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From Issue #13 March 28, 2013

Ground Control, Part 3

What kind of future drones will bring can’t yet be predicted.

By Eli Sanders Twitter icon 

“Droney,” part 3 of 3, from This Modern World by Tom Tomorrow.

Back to the future

The next day, at the end of the limo ride to Digi-Key, the students jumped out and began snatching up everything free and marked with the company’s name — Digi-Key catalogues, Digi-Key candies at the receptionist’s desk. Skeeler bought an orange Digi-Key t-shirt at the company store. His classmate Daniel Miller, a 20-year-old engineering major, bought two, one in red and another in tie-dye. Soo-Hyun Yoo, an OSU computer-science major, grabbed a free Digi-Key flash drive and a foam drink cooler.

Then we walked to the company’s highly automated warehouse, which felt a bit like arriving at the contest: a vertigo-inducing sensation of looking over the edge into a future that’s already here. (“It’s just not evenly distributed yet,” as the phrase credited to William Gibson goes.)

Human pickers ran around the warehouse grabbing parts that had been ordered online and that would soon be shipped to an unseen engineer in a distant land. The pickers wore static straps on their shoes to prevent the friction from their movements from creating an electrical charge that would ruin the merchandise. They stuck barcode labels on products and placed them on a snaking conveyor belt, and then a computer pushed the products off the belt at the station belonging to the right packer.

“Her computer was checking everything she did,” one student told me later. “She couldn’t mess up if she wanted to.” The student said this approvingly, the same way Miller had told me during the competition that drones and other types of intelligent robots will soon create a future in which “people are going to work a bit less.”

Back in the limo and headed to Grand Forks for ribs, Kahn told me about his newest creation for the military: a small, cheap, ultra-light, highly accurate glider drone called the CICADA, some versions of which have a circuit board that doubles as a wing. Kahn assembled the prototype using parts ordered from Digi-Key. He knows his drone has military applications, but he also thinks it could be used to guide vaccine doses down to a small jungle landing strip where they might be needed.

I was listening, but I was also looking out the window at the way the wind changed the color of the soybean fields, tipping up the dark green leaves of the close-packed plants so that all at once a bunch of their lighter green undersides appeared. When the breeze died, the field returned to a darker monochrome. Everywhere, the double sidedness.

A Chinese-made drone equipped with a surveillance camera displayed during the 9th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai on November 13, 2012. Photo by Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images.

Parroting

When I returned home to Seattle, I went online and ordered a Parrot. It arrived within days via FedEx. It was cute, colored in an orange and blue geometric pattern meant to evoke parrot-ness, and with bumpers that I could put around its blades for extra protection. (Which was comforting, because numerous students at the competition had shown me scars from their run-ins with drone blades.)

I unpacked my Parrot and flew the little anthropomorphized machine in front of some friends. Everyone wanted one. I took it out to a friend’s farmhouse so I could fly it around without too much fear of hurting people or the drone itself — because, actually, I was starting to like the challenge of mastering it. I made it do flips. I switched from its higher-res nose camera to its bottom-mounted camera and looked at myself from the view of this small flying robot I’d commanded with my thumbs and iPhone to hover 40 feet above me.

It was a deeply satisfying view, a vantage point that humans have dreamed of having at least since Icarus. From that perspective, $300 sometimes seemed a bargain. In other moments, though, it seemed an epic giveaway, paying $300 for the privilege of surrendering the ancient dream of human flight to a machine.

Anderson, of DIY Drones, had described drones slightly larger than the Parrot as “flying lawnmowers.” It seemed this phrase could apply to my Parrot as well, though when it took off or set down in low grass its propeller blades caused the grass blades to quiver in front of its nose camera in a way that was quite beautiful to watch later on video.

I had no idea what I might use this thing for aside from watching grass dance, and looking at myself, and mock-spying on my friend through his farmhouse window, and checking out how his roof is holding up. The killer app might be to make it cuss like a real parrot. Or, better, if it could allow me to set a drink on its back and then send that drink into the other room for delivery to my boyfriend.

That the Parrot can’t do this, and that it has some very apparent fragilities actually ended up being another aspect that endeared it to me. While it’s sturdy enough to survive certain falls and run-ins with tree branches, its battery lasts only about 10 minutes, and it can’t deal with strong wind and rain. As Yoo from the Oregon State team told me, all you really need right now to counter an off-the-shelf civilian drone is a baseball bat.

Freedom to barbecue naked

This realization was with me as I sat in a Seattle community meeting and watched the police department try to introduce the public to its new Draganflyer X6 drones, paid for (at $40,000 each) with a grant from the Department of Homeland Security. The meeting went sideways immediately. A young man in a Guy Fawkes mask yelled out, “Surveillance is not freedom!” A young woman yelled that Seattle was on the verge of becoming like the tribal areas of Afghanistan.

Clearly, not everyone in the 18-to-29 demographic is sanguine about domestic drones. One irate neighborhood resident demanded to know what would happen if the new Seattle Police Department drone flew through his backyard chasing someone “while I’m naked, barbecuing!” It didn’t seem the right time to suggest he keep a baseball bat handy.

A lot of the protesters, it appeared, were imagining an armed Predator hovering over Seattle, and not the object in front of them — a much cheaper unarmed vehicle that wouldn’t even be able to fly in one of the city’s dominant weather conditions, strong wind and rain. Police tried to assure the citizens at the meeting that the new drones wouldn’t be used for hot pursuits — just hostage situations, maybe, or search and rescue, or perhaps someone barricaded behind a wall that the drone could peer over.

It didn’t mollify the attendees or the public at large, and last month, the mayor of Seattle, facing a tough re-election fight and at least one opponent willing to make an issue out of the new police drones, reversed course. The Draganflyers, he declared, would be sent back to their manufacturer. Although his decree turned out to be harder to implement than expected, the mayor’s reversal didn’t surprise Calo, the expert on robots and the law. “People are not okay with machines that they associate with the theater of war flying around watching us.”

But this potential for the public to turn on drones — the potential harnessed by Rand Paul in his filibuster — has Calo and others worried about an overreaction that stops the U.S. drone boom in its tracks, forcing it to go elsewhere. “This could be the first transformative technology since steam that’s not American in some essential way,” Calo warned.

For now, Calo recommends that drone manufacturers receive immunity from lawsuits over the destructive uses to which their products might be put, in order to avoid stifling innovation. Called to testify before a Senate hearing on drones and privacy on March 20, Calo said that he does think some new drone regulations are needed, but at the moment he’s unsure as to whether they would be best achieved through a sweeping federal law, or through state-by-state action that allows for experimenting with different approaches. The senators, for their part, seemed convinced that Calo was right when he said that Fourth Amendment case law is not prepared to handle domestic drones, and that one way or another we need to “finally drag our inadequate privacy doctrines into the 21st century.”

Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), referring to a mosquito-sized drone, said, “God help us if an adolescent boy gets ahold of one of those.” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, “I know what drones can do…I’ve seen drones do all kinds of things, and I think those all kinds of things bring on great caution.”

While it may never become legal for U.S. civilians to weaponize their drones, Feinstein noted that people do all kinds of illegal things, and asked, “How can the government prevent that from happening?” Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) declared, “Our laws need to be as sophisticated as the people who are potentially breaking them.” And Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) cautioned, “The thought of government drones buzzing overhead monitoring the activities of law-abiding citizens runs contrary to the notion of what it means to live in a free society.”

Calo had heard all of these concerns before, and more. “We can be excited about the upside and still try to mitigate the downside,” he told me some weeks before the hearing. “That’s a very human thing — to want and to fear.”

Hive minds

When we talked about his fears, Anderson of DIY Drones told me he had been suddenly confronted with them not too long ago. “I was on a plane,” he said. “I had my laptop open, and I was programming. I was working on some of our code, and I was looking at some of our swarming algorithms.” Algorithms of this sort allow for multiple drones to act in concert — flying together in formation, for example.

“And then they came to serve the meal,” Anderson continued, “and I had to close the laptop to make room for my tray. And so I opened up the Kindle app on my iPad, and I opened up Daniel Suarez’s Kill Decision.” The book offers a dystopian view on swarming drone technology that ends up with a lot of people dying. “And then I finished my meal, and I close the iPad, and I open up my laptop again, and I start programming the swarming algorithm. And I say, ‘Wait. Is this how it happened?’”

Anderson doesn’t believe that we have the power to create drones that would have truly independent ability to act — there’s no Terminator in his vision of the future. “But even if we could,” he continued, “what should I do differently?”

I replied: Perhaps throw in a foolproof kill switch, like all the students at the competition were required to do for their machines?

“We’re an open-sourced project,” Anderson said. “How do we build in safeguards that someone else couldn’t take out? You can’t do it.”

In any case, there’s a more utopian project that better captures Anderson’s vision. It’s a foam plane his company’s currently designing that weighs “about two pounds, max,” intended for farmers in places like North Dakota. “They wake up in the morning, they unplug it, they throw it out the window, and then they go down to their office and they open up the crop report and they get this shot of what’s going on with the crops,” Anderson explained. “It goes up and down your crop, like a lawnmower. It goes click click click click click, and then all the imagery is uploaded onto a web service, which then stitches it together to make a composite, and then you get a Google Maps–quality image of your crop 10 minutes ago, at super high resolution.”

The Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission might actually like this drone, because it doesn’t take away human jobs. “This job isn’t being done at all,” Anderson said. “You know what it replaces?” he joked. “It replaces putting down twice as much herbicide as you need.” (Anderson said later he was using hyperbole, but regulatory agencies and environmentalists estimate even higher multiples of herbicide miss the intended plants.)

Both Anderson and I had recently seen Looper, and both of us had noticed the beat-up drone that Emily Blunt’s character uses in the year 2044 to tend her farm’s crops. Anderson particularly loved the way Blunt’s character casually started her drone up and sent it off to work in a quick moment so pedestrian it was entirely missable for the average viewer. “It was just so, sort of, matter of fact,” he said.

That, he hopes, is the future.

French firefighters test a Fly-n-Sense (FNS) drone in the Landes forest region which will enable real-time monitoring of forest fires. Photo by Pierre Andrieu/AFP/Getty Images.

The human hand

The visit I’d made to the Grand Forks Air Force Base after the competition had sent my mind back to an era of outdated thinking — to the Cold War, when every action required a more aggressive counter-action, which led to ever more escalation that only a tremendous amount of luck, and very little sanity, kept from causing human annihilation.

And I should say: I’m 35 years old, which is not old enough to have gone through the true frozen terror of the Cold War, but not as young as most of the competitors, for whom the threat of mass destruction via nuclear bombs mounted on ICBMs is even more remote.

Still, I wondered why the students who are building our flying-robot future didn’t look at their creations and have thoughts similar to the one J. Robert Oppenheimer said he had as he recoiled from the dark potential of his breakthrough creation, the atomic bomb — a creation that quickly ushered in the Cold War. Oppenheimer said he recalled a line from the Bhagavad-Gita, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Already, an international drones race is on, with some 11 countries developing drone arsenals, including Iran, Israel, and China. And the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, said in January that having the drone-strike option “can lower the threshold for decision-making to take action” — because both the remote operator and the remote decision-maker have fewer factors inhibiting a destructive impulse.

The same will be true for civilians who buy drones and end up using them to act on destructive impulses. Their violence will be of a new kind in America, airborne and potentially untethered from the human hand, making it not just remote-controlled, but also physically and psychologically remote.

However, as Skeeler’s teammate Daniel Miller pointed out on the ride to Digi-Key, the comparison to a time when we first opened the Pandora’s box of nuclear weaponry only goes so far. A nuclear bomb has only destructive uses, Miller noted. The drones the students are making aren’t optimized for military purposes, and anyway drones can be used both destructively and constructively — with the constructive uses having the most potential in the students’ minds.

Even if vandalism, peeping, and violence are possible outcomes, Miller had already warned me, “You can’t regulate them. Almost everything on there is easily accessible. They’re everywhere already.” If the government did someday decide to regulate his drone parts, Miller explained, he could build a drone simply by cannibalizing parts from an iPhone, a washing machine, a microwave, and a model airplane kit. All he’d need is some wire and the right tools.

The lone dissenter on the Oregon State team was Soo-Hyun Yoo, then 19. “Not everybody should have these things,” he said. “Because people are stupid, to put it frankly, and putting dangerous things in stupid people’s hands is a dangerous thing to do. That said, we can’t control what everyone does, nor should we.”

Brave new world

In a quiet moment on the sidelines at the competition in Grand Forks, one of the contest organizers said to me, “My biggest fear is that the engineers will take over the world, not these autonomous systems.”

In another quiet moment, Cape, the mechanical engineer from the University of Southern California, mentioned that his school made him study engineering ethics. “I brought it up,” he said when I called him later, “because I think that’s something most engineers should think about when they start building drones. I think it’s something most engineers avoid thinking about.”

After I’d returned home, and after I’d tired of the Parrot and stashed it in a closet, I found myself thinking about my limo conversation with Skeeler. So I called him up at school to chew through all the issues one more time. Skeeler tried to explain to me, again, what it is an engineer does. “What we do is make stuff that’s cool,” he told me. “What other people do, that have degrees in it, is question the ethics. Isn’t that what you’re doing right now?”

I told him I’d just re-watched The Terminator, in which Reese, one of the robot-fighting human heroes, actually travels back in time to warn people about what’s going to happen — that they’re about to be destroyed by, hunted by, or enslaved by the fancy technologies they’ve created.

“Well, we already are enslaved to technology,” Skeeler said. “Just talk to any of your friends who have children who are five years old and have cell phones. But I understand what you’re saying. There is that risk, and it will always be there.”

Finally. The Skeeler acknowledgment of risk.

I was feeling so good about this I told Skeeler I’d do him a favor: If this whole domestic drone thing doesn’t work out so well, and if we do all end up being hunted down and enslaved by the flying robots he’s building, then I promised to come back from the future and warn him about how bad it’s gotten.

“OK,” Skeeler replied. “I’ll look for you in the next few days. And if I don’t see you I’ll assume I was totally right.”

Cartoon by Tom Tomorrow.

Eli Sanders is an associate editor at The Stranger and the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.

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